NSA Fights Back Against Critics

The National Security Agency is challenging those who want to overhaul its surveillance operations. A special panel has sent a report to the White House on how NSA programs should be changed. The group was established by the president following revelations about NSA eavesdropping.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The National Security Agency is fighting back against its critics. The agency is one of the most secretive in the U.S. government, but the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, went on the CBS program "60 Minutes" last night to defend his agency from those who want to limit NSA authorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: The probability that a terrorist attack will occur is going up and this is precisely the time that we should not step back from the tools that we've given our analysts to detect these types of attacks.

GREENE: Now, documents taken by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed vast NSA surveillance operations, and in response President Obama appointed an advisory group to recommend changes in NSA operations. That group delivered its report to the White House last week. And joining us to discuss the possible reforms and the NSA's reaction is NPR's Tom Gjelten, who's come into the studio this morning. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this report officially not for public consumption, but what do we know about it so far?

GJELTEN: Well, we do know that the advisory group made about 40 recommendations, possible changes to these NSA surveillance operations. As you say, they are not yet public, but some have leaked out. In fact, one of them was shot down by the White House even before it was delivered. The advisory group was suggesting that the NSA be put under civilian rather than military control and separated from the military's cyber command.

But the White House came right out and said, nope, bad idea. And then, in a statement later on Friday, the White House said it would consider the recommendations, the rest of the recommendations, but by no means was it promising to implement them.

GREENE: Notable, the White House is reacting to whatever leaks out about a report that's not even supposed to be public, but they're certainly managing how this - the reaction to this. What else do we know about the recommendations?

GJELTEN: Some major changes at the NSA, some minor. The group thinks the NSA is acting within the law when it collects data on the telephone calls Americans make, but they say it might be a good idea for someone else besides the NSA to keep custody of that data, maybe the phone companies themselves. They say there should be stricter standards for searching that data.

The court that reviews NSA operations should maybe have a public advocate sitting in on the deliberations. Right now it's just the government and the court, no one else. And the group also said the communications of foreign leaders shouldn't be monitored without more oversight by the White House itself, and of course that's a reference to what we learned about Angela Merkel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others.

GREENE: That big dust-up, a big embarrassment for the Obama administration. Well, we heard the NSA director there saying this is a time when there might be more terrorist attacks, that this is not a time to roll back what the NSA is allowed to do. Any idea yet of what the agency thinks of some of these ideas?

GJELTEN: Well, I think that "60 Minutes" last night interview, David, gave us a good idea. In that interview, General Alexander even referred to some of these proposed changes, even though the report's not out yet. He doesn't think it'd be a great idea to have the phone companies, rather than the NSA, hold onto the phone records. As we already noted, he doesn't think it's time to put new limits on what the NSA can do.

As for whether the NSA should be listening in on foreign leaders, he claimed, as he has before, that when this happens, it's because some agency in the government requested it. But then he essentially predicted there will be changes to this practice of monitoring foreign leaders' communications.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

ALEXANDER: That's one of the ones that the White House and I think our principals are looking at - what is the appropriate measures, what should we do and what are we going to stop doing. From my perspective, when we look at that, it has to be both ways. Our country and their country has to come to an agreement to do the same.

GJELTEN: So we stop listening to your leaders if you stop listening to our leaders.

GREENE: Gotcha. Well, you know, how extraordinary was this interview? I mean, it's pretty rare for the head of the NSA to go on sort of a PR campaign and go on a national televised program, right?

GJELTEN: Right, David. Clearly the NSA is feeling under the gun. I've heard from both insiders and outsiders that morale there is down because of all these criticisms they've gotten over their surveillance operations. The NSA leadership doesn't think they've done a good job of explaining what they do and why. They don't think the White House is sticking up for them, so they're doing it on their own.

You know, they opened their doors to NPR recently, and this week there will be more interviews released on a national security website called Lawfare Blog, so it's a whole new era for the NSA.

GREENE: It sounds like it. And so what's next after this report, you know, after it's digested?

GJELTEN: Well, the administration says it will review the report sometime after the first of the year. The president will talk about which recommendations he'll support and then the report will be released. Also, remember there's a privacy and civil liberties oversight group working on their own report. Congress is weighing in as well, proposing some new laws governing what the NSA does. And then looking ahead, David, we know that General Alexander is going to retire in the next few months.

And just to report that his civilian deputy, Chris Inglis, is retiring as well, so there will be leadership changes.

GREENE: A period of transition. NPR's Tom Gjelten talking to us about possible changes at the NSA. Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

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